Smart cities are also inclusive cities: We need to draw on all residents' knowledge

Posted in: COVID-19, Evidence and policymaking, Global politics, International development

Caroline Fazli is an international development consultant, and is currently studying for a University of Bath Institute for Policy Research (IPR) and Department of Social and Policy Sciences Professional Doctorate in Policy Research and Practice (DPRP). 

The nationwide lockdown in India that began in March 2020, in response to the COVID-19 pandemic, led to the return of some 80 million migrants from cities to their home villages. The hardships encountered by these reverse migrants on the road home, facing a dearth of transport facilities and resources to be able to make the long journey back safely, opened the eyes of many to the plight of urban informal sector workers who play such a key role in making Indian cities run.

In view of the increasingly visible injustices facing migrants in Indian cities, the Baha’i Chair for Studies in Development (BCSD) at Devi Ahilya University (DAVV), Indore, organised a webinar in July 2020 titled, ‘Making Cities Belong to Those who Build Them: Toward a More Inclusive Urbanisation’. This was part of a series of webinars bringing together academics, researchers, civil society leaders and policymakers in India in exploration of development issues in light of the circumstances created by the COVID-19 pandemic.

The July webinar highlighted the important role played by migrants in India’s cities, the structural and social challenges they encounter, and changes needed in the way they are perceived. Urbanisation is proceeding at breakneck speed in India and has depended largely on the labour of some 500 million informal sector workers– many of them migrants—who often live in crowded informal settlements, in precarious conditions with very limited access to legal protections and civic services.

Speakers in the webinar touched on the changes at the level of policy and in urban development programmes that would be needed to make urbanisation more just and inclusive for the entire population, particularly migrant workers. The presentations also addressed the question of what it would mean for policy to see migrants not only as bundles of needs and wants, or as cheap sources of labour, but rather as full human beings who can potentially make valuable and creative contributions to the social, cultural and spiritual life of society as a whole.

The presentation “Whose Knowledge Makes the City Smart? Exploring conceptions of the role of knowledge in urban policy in Indore, India”, highlighted the need for a more people-centred smart urbanism. With Indore being selected as one of the first cohort of cities in India to be partially redeveloped as Smart Cities, a great deal of public discussion has been taking place regarding what it means to be a smart city.

The reference to ‘smartness’ in the context of urban planning and development seems to imply the adoption of a template for urban development that relies heavily on digital and information technology-based solutions. While this model assumes the tech-savvy middle and upper classes who have the digital literacy and the financial means to participate in this digitally-mediated form of governance,  the question that is left unanswered is what role the migrant workers and the city’s informal settlement residents who form a substantial segment of its population in this process of governance and in the knowledge that informs it.

The question is not merely limited to whether they have the means, or the knowledge needed to use and benefit from ‘smart’ services. At a more profound level, it is whether such a model can genuinely elicit their participation by allowing their voices to be heard without reducing their concerns to tokenisms and more importantly by allowing them to contribute their vision for the city’s development and their perspectives and learning on how the challenges that it faces can be overcome.

Recent literature has proposed a shift from technology-intensive to knowledge-intensive urbanism (McFarlane and Söderström, 2017; Housing and Land Rights Network, 2017; Ghosh and Arora, 2019; Datta, 2015). The Smart Cities Mission has incorporated language and tools to invite citizen participation. If this participation were to extend beyond online surveys to include residents of informal settlements more systematically, what contributions could these residents make to the vision for the betterment of the city?

These are some of the concerns that inspired a research project carried out by BCSD in two informal settlements along the riverfront in Indore that are currently being redeveloped under the Smart Cities Mission. Research has focused on the cultural and religious knowledge systems and practices that the communities in these settlements drew on and adapted to their socio-cultural context in addressing challenges of water scarcity and seasonal flooding. It has shown that through experience with applying spiritual principles from their religious belief systems to the practical challenges of community life, the residents of these settlements have valuable insights to offer to the wider population of the city on collaborative approaches to achieving collective goals and conflict resolution. These insights, however, appear not to have been given sufficient consideration by policymakers.

The issue of water was found to be a natural entry point for discussing relationships, wellbeing and perspectives on urban development. In discussing their relationships with one another vis-à-vis water issues, residents in the two settlements identified the potential for conflict over water at shared taps but also the many instances of cooperation. Likewise, residents recollected many instances of mutual assistance, even across caste and communal lines, in coping with flooding.

Regarding the knowledge of conservation and collective management of common resources such as water - residents espoused perspectives that contrast with conceptions of water as a commodity consumed by the individual. Residents spoke passionately about the moral duty to use the earth’s resources according to one’s need, not one’s greed (ISGP, 2020). Places of worship such as shrines, mosques, temples and dargahs, provided water to the inhabitants of both localities from their wells during times of water shortage, as did businesses and households that had wells on their properties (Ibid., p.37). Two residents underscored the perspective towards water as follows:

"Water [like the rest of nature] does not consider differences. It does not ask - whose water am I? Or who is drinking me or using me? Neither water, nor the air, nor the sky or the rain or the earth gives any regard to differences between people.  It doesn’t differentiate—it flows for all" (Ibid., p.21).

"Water like air and fire cannot be made into parts or divided. Water that flows…doesn’t know whether it is now in Pakistan or in Hindustan. Nobody can divide it. It is a bestowal of God" (Ibid., p.19).

This perspective begs the question—how would urban development policy be different if it considered water and other urban commons in the light that these residents do? Research findings have illustrated the strikingly resourceful, culturally rich lives of the residents of informal settlements. Particular attention has been drawn to their spiritual knowledge that allowed residents to perceive their solidarity and interconnectedness with their neighbours, practice stewardship of the environment and draw on the strong social fabric in order to mutually assist one another to overcome challenges. An interviewee recalled an Islamic hadith to the effect that, “until you know that your neighbour has food to eat and is not going hungry, you should not eat,” and a Hindu resident said “it is the dharma (moral duty) of neighbours to support one another during difficulties and share in one another’s joys and sorrows, regardless of the other’s caste or creed” (ISGP, 2020, p.29).

This knowledge of what it means to create a community life based on interconnectedness and reciprocity is a valuable resource not to be overlooked when seeking to promote the visions of progress that drive smart urbanism. A more inclusive and equitable urbanisation, one that ‘makes cities belong to those who build them’, would need to draw on such sources of knowledge as it seeks to involve citizens of all walks of life in processes of collectively learning how to build a better city for all residents.

Most residents cherished the culture of religious harmony and Hindu-Muslim syncretism that had developed over the years in their neighbourhoods through living together side by side and facing shared challenges together (ISGP, 2020). This was a noticeable contrast to the communalist rhetoric that in recent times has been circulating in social media groups in my own middle-class, ‘developed’ neighbourhood in the same city. Residents’ comments on how they earn a living, conduct trade, access healthcare and credit all revolved around their reliance on a complex network of relationships in their neighbourhoods built on non-monetised resources such as trust, friendship and reciprocity (Ibid., p.35).

At a moment in India’s history in which models of development often augment exploitation, disparity and fragmentation, the knowledge of populations that are able to actually perceive connection and relatedness—interdependence among people, the environment and the city—needs to be further explored for its potential to make a valuable contribution to knowledge of how to build a just city.


  • Datta, A., 2015. A 100 smart cities, a 100 utopias. Dialogues in Human Geography, 5(1), pp.49–53. Available from:
  • Ghosh, B. and Arora, S., 2019. Smart as Democratically Transformative? An Analysis of ‘Smart City’ Sociotechnical Imaginary in India. Available from:
  • Housing and Land Rights Network, 2017. India’s Smart Cities mission: Smart for whom? Cities for whom?, p.84. Available from:
  • ISGP, 2020. Exploring the application of spiritual principles in efforts to address water-related challenges in urban informal settlements in Indore, India. [Unpublished manuscript].
  • McFarlane, C. and Söderström, O., 2017. On alternative smart cities: From a technology-intensive to a knowledge-intensive smart urbanism. City, 21(3–4), pp.312–328. Available from:

This blog was originally posted via the Centre for Development Studies on 6 January 2021. All articles posted on this blog give the views of the author(s), and not the position of the IPR, nor of the University of Bath.

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Posted in: COVID-19, Evidence and policymaking, Global politics, International development


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